Darkness: The Vampire Version (1993)
By: Devon B. on July 5, 2006  |  Comments  |  Bookmark and Share
Barrel Entertainment (USA). Region 1, NTSC. 1.78:1 (16:9 enhanced). English DD 2.0. 84 minutes
The Movie
Director: Lief Jonker
Starring: Gary Miller, Michael Gisick, Cena Donham, Steve Brown, Lisa Franz, Bill Hooper, Christopher Owen Michael, Robert Lower, Veronica Page Dennen, Jake Euker, Randall Aviks
Screenplay: Lief Jonker
Country: USA
I remember Lief Jonker's Darkness causing a bit of a stir when it first came out via Film Threat's video label. The release's cover featured a very gory still of a vampire, which, coupled with the awesome tagline 'Even the dead will scream,' made for one of the best covers ever. There was actually discussion that the film might be carried by a major, international video store, with the plan to create a toned down cover, but eventually the film's content made the chain decide not to stock the movie, clean cover or no. To prevent further cover bans, Barrel has come up with a flipper slick so wussy stores can stock the film. One side is clean; one uses the same bloody still from the original release. Barrel has also housed the two-disc set in a slipcase, but this unfortunately uses the 'clean' cover art, presumably so the two-disc edition can still be sold in nice stores everywhere.

The big question I had back during the film's debut was: who was this Lief Jonker guy who thought making one movie entitled him to stick his name above the film? Now, the film is actually called Lief Jonker's Darkness: The Vampire Version. This is way too much pomposity for a film like Darkness. This is not Léon: Version Intégrale material, and the term director's cut (or in this case director's recut) would've been just fine. But then, Jonker was wanky with titles from the get go.

The DVD begins by showing the difference between the current remastered Vampire Version and the previous releases. When this started playing, the first time it showed the Vampire Version, I was absolutely amazed at the improvement. This was not the Darkness I remembered, but then, it was never going to be. The actual film has been recut by Jonker to try and present the film as he wanted to back when it was first coming out. Is Jonker the George Lucas of the underground horror community? Not really, as 1) he includes the original cut of the film on the two disc set because fans wanted it 2) he had good reason for wanting to do his new version of the film, detailed in the special features and 3) he didn't just want to include new CG shots of explosion rings around sunstruck vampires.

The movie can be played alone, or with an intro that gives it the feel of seeing it at a theatre. I guess this is the 'festival screening intro' as it does include the promo for Jonker's still-in-development Demon Machine. Sorry, it's actually Lief Jonker's Demon Machine.

Darkness opens with a profusely bleeding man running into a convenience store, warning those inside of an approaching danger. As the new subtitle implies, the danger is in the form of a bloodsucker. The vampire descends upon the store, and hell breaks loose. The sole survivor of the attack, enraged upon finding that the vampire has attacked others in his town, goes on a quest to end the terror. He ends up hooking up with some other teenagers whose town is the current ground zero of vampiritis. This may not seem like much of a plot point, but it is pretty much the WHOLE plot of Darkness, so I thought I'd mention it. The movie culminates in one of the gooiest endings ever.

Darkness was helmed by a bunch of teenagers, with Jonker literally selling blood to help finance it, so it obviously isn't flawless. Even in this new version, which has new songs on the soundtrack, shuffled scenes, and snips of extra gore, the film is VERY rough. The pacing is much improved on the original cut, which always seemed to me to be two very good scenes book ending a movie that just kinda slipped by, with the only other thing I could ever remember from the movie being the chainsaw sequence. This new edition creates a much better narrative flow, but the film still has plot holes and characters doing really stupid things, and the film still never really rekindles the verve of its opening few minutes until the very end.

Darkness has some real weaknesses, and not just the terrible hairdos. The acting is mostly atrocious, and is by far the weakest point. Could I have done better at such a young age? I can say from experience: No. No, I couldn't. In fact, I probably couldn't do better even now, but I'm also not going to lie and say Darkness has great performances.

What it does have is blood. Lots of blood. It also features very fast moving vampires, who actually rip their prey apart more like zombies, and I don't doubt that one thing Jonker's can claim credit for is spearheading the new fast zombie wave of movies. The film is a fun, LOW budget splatter flick, and a must see for fans of independent splatter.
Darkness is presented at 1.78:1 in a 16x9-enhanced print. The image is a bit soft, there's trailing, blotches, specks, grain, and dirt. Light levels flicker, and the dark scenes are very dark. But I NEVER dreamed Darkness would look this good. Not since Elite's original release of Night of the Living Dead has there been such a revelation on the home video front. The image is much more solid, the light levels are adjusted where possible, and the film looks really good for a Super 8 feature.
The audio track has also been improved in this release, slowing down the previously sped up sound from other releases. The clean up of the print has made the ADR much more noticeable, and the sound can suffer 's' hisses. The new score is an improvement, but sometimes doesn't fit with the film, as it seems much higher quality than the actual film in places, and certainly feels more current than the movie itself. Audio can jump in the commentaries as tracks are interspliced.
Extra Features
The 2-disc set comes with an insert with alternate cover art and liner notes by Jonker explaining what The Vampire Version is.

The film itself has three commentaries. Jonker provided commentary on the 'theatre' intros, which tend to be info about the upcoming commentary.

The first is a cast and crew commentary, which does include Jonker. This commentary features too many people to keep track of who's who, and can get chaotic, but despite this it is surprisingly good. That doesn't normally happen on these no budget wonders. The anecdotes are often amusing, and the information provided remains engaging.

The second track is focused on the music and FX, and Jonker's joined again by Gary Miller (star and FX guy) from the first commentary and composer Michael Curtis. The guys had been out drinking the night before after a film festival screening, and were a bit tired. They start out speaking slow, and since Jonker already sounds a bit like Buffalo Bill, this was very odd. Eventually they warm up to the process, and it goes well. This track focuses HEAVILY on the music. Film music is not my favourite subject, but this is a well done track, and does cover other things like cinematography, cameras, a few anecdotes, and naturally the FX in the ultra bloody finale.

On the intro to the third track, Samatha Seymour, producer of The Vampire Version and Mrs. Lief Jonker, joins Jonker. The actual track to the film is Jonker solo. Jonker explains the 'vampire version' name, but I still think the title's too long. Otherwise, this is a very interesting track, and a must hear for any indie filmmakers. The history of the movie is broken down, as are Jonker's intentions with the project, which was actually never meant to be seen. Jonker says this DVD is the definitive version until he gets $100,000 for a super deluxe transfer. I won't be holding my breath for that.

Okay, here's the deal, ALL the other supplemental material, even the eggs, feature optional commentary with Jonker unless otherwise noted. I was going to list each commentary separately, thinking it might be funny, but by the end of the note taking process, it wasn't even funny to me anymore. Instead, I will just go into more detail where necessary. While this did have me worried that the disc would suffer the same fate as the over commentated Hostel, in this case Jonker made some wise moves to keep things diverse, and also has the benefit of 15 years worth of living with the movie to discuss.

After the main commentaries there're nearly 80 minutes worth of extra features on disc one alone, and that's not counting the commentary tracks on these features! The extras on disc one include a rough cut of the climactic meltdown, featuring two and a half more minutes of footage than found in The Vampire Version. There's a smaller still gallery than on disc two, a very cool promo/demo on the remastering of the film, trailers (including the mock up trailers for the unmade Darkness sequels), and the mega promo reel used to procure funding. Apostasy, the band that contributed to the new soundtrack, have a music video, partially filmed when they were pay-to-play-ers at a spin off to that huge rip off, the Milwaukee Metalfest. A look behind the climactic FX is here, and this is the commentary section where Jonker goes into more detail about the gore FX. Even if you don't like FX behind the scenes, check out Robo Tim for some laughs. The largest extra is Vampire Bootcamp, a thirty minute retrospective on the film featuring interviews with the cast at a festival screening of The Vampire Version and also shows casting call footage from 1989. This feature REALLY highlights how young everyone involved was. The commentary here is actually two additional interviews with actors that were unable to attend the screening.

Disc one also has a few Easter eggs. From the main menu, press left or right on anything to highlight 'BARREL entertainment.' Press enter to get the DVD credits and thank yous. From here, go to the final screen, and press up from 'main menu' to highlight the prop. Press enter to see a few quick outtakes.

Go to the chapter selection and select chapter 13, 'The Dead Scream,' to see footage of screams being re-recorded. I don't know what you should do if you want to start the film from chapter 13, though.

For those who enjoyed the original version of the film and defy any recutting, disc two features the original version of Darkness, presented at 1.33:1 and remastered from the original 1" video tape master. The commentary track gives a brief answer to that great fuckwit of Sci-Fi, Mr. Lucas, but the rest of the track is a hodge podge of scrapped commentary material and interview clips, as Jonker felt he had plenty of other opportunities to discuss the film at that point (take note of this, Eli Roth).

Disc two also a 50-minute photo/film clip archive presented with the film's score in lieu of a soundtrack CD. Jonker provides commentary, but there are also some sound clips. The artwork section here is really cool, and even includes the bootleg Red Edition DVD.

There're also two featurettes on two film festivals that The Vampire Version went to, each running about 20 minutes. They both have a Q & A session, and Seymour again joins Jonker on the commentary tracks. The tour behind the scenes is actually a clip of Dr. Kink's Land of 1,000 Assholes, a doco made by someone visiting the set. This footage is likely to cause headaches, and is essentially a home movie of the antics behind the scenes of Darkness. An interview with a bleached blonde Jonker on Deth's Oogly Hed is included, with a commentary track that also features Seymour. Finishing up the disc are alternate trailers, alternate and deleted scenes, a TV intro/promo reel hosted by a sock puppet, and promo trailers for the unmade Skull Full, Demon Machine, and Darkness 2. The commentary on the trailers cuts out, but seems to pick up in roughly the same spot on a making of for the promo trailers, which is obviously also on the disc.

Disc two also has an egg, and a rather significant one. Press left on 'play all' from the main menu to highlight the Barrel thing again. Pressing enter will again take you into the credits. Once there press left to highlight a name on the screen. Hit enter for a promo trailer for the unmade Ghost Carol, which is then followed by Jonker's original Ghost Carol short that he made when he was 14. It's not called Lief Jonker's Ghost Carol, but his initials do appear over the title.
The Verdict
Can you say definitive? Info does repeat, but with a set this comprehensive, that's to be expected. The two-disc set is without doubt the way to go. As I've said before, Barrel Entertainment is the best DVD company around. This is quite possibly the most deluxe special edition of all time, and an absolute must have for fans of Darkness, or those interested in indie horror or splatter flicks.
Movie Score
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